Congressman Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico's Third District spoke today at a National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Subcommittee hearing on H.R. 1241, legislation Luján introduced to establish the Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area in New Mexico. Below are his remarks.
"Thank you very much, and we have a few witnesses that are with us today, namely our Mayor, the Honorable Esther Garcia from Questa. We also have one of our grazing permitees from the area, Mr. Erminio Martinez, and one of our fellow commissioners from the County of Mora, in addition to other responsibilities and hats he wears, John Olivas. Thank you all for being here.
"Mr. Chairman, this is an area in New Mexico where we talk about the importance of protecting historic areas, looking at small towns and villages, an area of New Mexico that actually predates the United States government and predates the creation of the United States forest as well. Historically, the towns, villages and pueblos that have lived off the forest and grasslands in New Mexico predate the creation of the U.S. Forest Service. And we have a close cultural connection to the land. Both Native Americans and Spanish settlers used these lands for subsistence and sustenance as well, and we talk about the centuries they have accessed these lands and these treasures surrounding them.
"For those of you who aren't familiar with New Mexico's rich traditions, a land grant is a communal grant of land given to a community or village in perpetuity for the purpose of subsistence and sustenance. An acequia is a centuries old irrigation canal which is governed through the collective maintenance of the water flow so that water can move into areas for watering crops, raising animals -- both of which have allowed New Mexico settlements to thrive and still play an important role in our culture, our daily lives, and in the relationship between these communities and our public lands. We often describe these water systems as the ancient aqueducts in Rome. They start at the head gates and they move down through hand-carved canals if you will -- earthen ditches that carry this important water.
"Before New Mexico was a territory of the Unites States, land grant communities, rural villages, and acequias were governed through the communal management of natural resources, including water, timber, grazing lands, wildlife, herbs, and fields that were the life of these communities. These traditions still exist today, with many that have direct ties to ancestors that go back 12, 13, sometimes 16 generations, Mr. Chairman. The Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area, H.R. 1241, is legislation that we have before us today. The threat that development poses to these traditions will negatively impact our culture, making protection of these lands so critical.
"Not only do these lands represent the collective cultural and traditional history of the communities that surround the proposed Conservation and Wilderness Area, they represent the collective effort between the conservation community and local stakeholders. Many years of work went in to the creation of this proposal with local comminutes, grazing permitees, land grant communities, acequia organization, local businesses, and conservation organizations. It's truly a reflection of how partnership can work and what I hope to be an example of model legislation going forward for the state of New Mexico.
"The legislation not only recognizes and reflects the need to protect these areas, but also takes into account the special access that needs to be allowed for these lands and traditions and cultures of the surrounding communities to thrive. I am confident, with a few technical changes, that the bill can be strengthened to protect the heritage of New Mexico, and I am committed to do that.
"Mr. Chairman, the environmentally, culturally, and historically rich landscapes of the San Luis Valley and Rio Grande Gorge that encompass the proposed Rio Grande del Norte National Conservation Area are part of New Mexico's rich treasures. Growing up in the small community of Nambe, a small farming community that I still call home where we still raise sheep -- an area of New Mexico where my grandfather, my dad's dad Celedon, actually grazed sheep and ran them right after the Great Depression, Mr. Chairman. This is something that is very personal to me. It's something that's important to many people in New Mexico, and it's something that we look forward to accomplishing together. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, I yield back my time."